A steep learn­ing ark

Steve Carrell is be­wil­dered by his sud­den rise to A-list sta­tus, he tells Miles Fielder

The Herald - Arts - - Cinema -

It’s a pow­er­ful en­dorse­ment of the belly laugh-in­duc­ing abil­i­ties of Amer­i­can co­me­dian Steve Carrell and in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence of his rapid rise to star sta­tus on the big screen that just four years af­ter mak­ing his first film ap­pear­ance of note, in the 2003 God-com­plex com­edy Bruce Almighty, Carrell is tak­ing over the lead role from $25m-a-pic­ture su­per­star Jim Car­rey in the se­quel, Evan Almighty. The 44-year-old, who ap­par­ently at­tended the pre­miere of the first film fully ex­pect­ing to find his scenes dumped on the cut­ting room floor, can’t quite be­lieve the speed with which he has as­cended to the lead role in a Hol­ly­wood block­buster.

“When Tom [Shadyac, the di­rec­tor] came to me to talk about a se­quel to Bruce Almighty, I truly thought that he meant, ‘We are do­ing a se­quel with Jim Car­rey and we want you to reprise your role as the same char­ac­ter’,” says Carrell. “And then he said, ‘We’re ac­tu­ally think­ing about you as the lead char­ac­ter’.”

That said, Carrell, who is as self-ef­fac­ing on screen as he is off it, qual­i­fies his pro­mo­tion by adding: “Jim gets all the power of God and I get pooped on by birds. He gets to lasso the moon for Jen­nifer Anis­ton and I get to hang out in a sweaty robe for three months.”

In the orig­i­nal film, Car­rey’s ter­mi­nally frus­trated television an­chor­man Bruce Nolan bad-mouths God one time too many, prompt­ing his almight­i­ness (played with ap­pro­pri­ate grav­i­tas by Morgan Free­man) to be­queath the mis­er­able mor­tal with all his power for one day, so teach­ing him that be­ing the cre­ator of the uni­verse isn’t as easy as one might think. In the se­quel, Carrell’s nerdy but am­bi­tious politi­cian Evan Bax­ter, who gets hung out to dry on air by om­nipo­tent Bruce in the pre­vi­ous in­stal­ment, is off to Wash­ing­ton to make his name when God in­ter­venes in the lives of mor­tal men once again and charges the would-be power player with over­see­ing the con­struc­tion of an ark, much like Noah did the last time cli­mate change was threat­en­ing the con­tin­u­a­tion of life on earth.

The cen­tral idea of the first film is car­ried over to the se­quel, which sports what Bri­tish, if not Amer­i­can, cin­ema-go­ers might think a mar­vel­lous pun­ning ti­tle: God gives an ev­ery­day Joe (or Bruce, or Evan) a crash course in hu­mil­ity, and the hard les­son taught is played out with a se­ries of knock­about set-pieces that give the CGI boffins in Cal­i­for­nia plenty to do. But the dif­fer­ence be­tween Car­rey’s and Carrell’s brands of hu­mour gives the new film a comic em­pha­sis that keeps it dis­tinct from its pre­de­ces­sor. Where Car­rey is volatile with his manic mug­ging, Carrell is re­strained with his patented self-ef­face­ment. Car­rey’s com­edy is es­sen­tially slap­stick, whereas Carrell’s is sit­uat i o n a l . So wh e re Bruce did unto oth­ers, Evan has it done unto him.

Main­tain­ing – as he does to fine comic ef­fect on screen – a mild-man­nered ex­pres­sion, Carrell out­lines an ex­am­ple: “There was a scene where th­ese two ba­boons had to hand me lemon­ade when I was build­ing the ark, and one of them spilt the lemon­ade, so I im­pro­vised and said some­thing like, ‘Hey, man, what are you do­ing?’ The ba­boon went crazy. He thought I was be­ing ag­gres­sive and he got mad and bared his teeth. I con­tin­ued with the scene and later the an­i­mal trainer came up to me and said, ‘Look, don’t do that – don’t im­pro­vise with the ba­boons and don’t look them in the eye!’ And I thought well, maybe he should have told me that be­fore I started the take!”

What makes Evan Bax­ter funny, Carrell con­tin­ues, is “he starts off as kind of a blowhard [loud­mouth]. He has a ripe ego and thinks very highly of him­self. As a con­gress­man, his cam­paign slo­gan is “change the world”. But to him that’s just a slo­gan. And yet he gets to learn what that state­ment re­ally means, and that’s where the in­ter­play with God comes in. It’s funny to watch some­one be re­duced to the essence of who they are and then build their way back and fight. And it is a strug­gle. Evan’s gone to Wash­ing­ton to be­come a con­gress­man, but finds him­self hang­ing off the side of an ark with thou­sands of an­i­mals aboard. So it’s more of a sit­u­a­tional com­edy, rather than laugh­ing at how goofy he is or whether he says some­thing wacky.”

Else­where, Carrell has said he

thinks a char­ac­ter in a com­edy should not know they’re in a com­edy, and that he doesn’t think of him­self as funny ei­ther. It’s ex­actly that strin­gent ef­fort to not to be funny that makes Carrell fre­quently hi­lar­i­ous, and it’s this which has, no doubt, made him one of the most pop­u­lar comic ac­tors work­ing to­day. He was the nat­u­ral choice to play the David Brent part in the Amer­i­can ver­sion of The Of­fice, which earned him a Golden Globe award and for which he has just been signed up for an­other 30 episodes.

Hav­ing earned his stripes do­ing im­prov in Chicago, Carrell grad­u­ated to television, join­ing Jon Ste­wart on the poker-faced news satire The Daily Show. From there, and be­fore David Brent’s Amer­i­can cousin came call­ing, Carrell made Bruce Almighty and a clutch of “frat­pack” come­dies (An­chor­man, Be­witched). He even­tu­ally struck gold with the dou­ble whammy of the self-ex­plana­to­rily ti­tled The 40-YearOld Vir­gin, which earned a whop­ping $175m world­wide, and Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine, which en­joyed equiv­a­lent crit­i­cal praise and, rarely for a com­edy, was recog­nised at last year’s Os­cars.

When Carrell made The 40-Year-Old Vir­gin in 2005, he re­ceived a rel­a­tively tiny salary of $500,000 for his ef­forts, which in­volved co-writ­ing the script and en­dur­ing a CGI-free, skin-rip­ping chest wax­ing. Two years later he’s be­ing paid $5m (£2.5m) to put on a sweaty robe, s a n d a ls an d f a ls e b e a rd fo r Eva n Almighty, and quite rightly he finds the whole busi­ness as im­prob­a­ble as a con­gress­man be­ing asked to build an ark.

“It’s so strange,” he says. “I some­times won­der how I got in­vited to this party. The past two years have been crazy and some­thing that I would never have an­tic­i­pated. I went to the All-Star bas­ket­ball game in Las Ve­gas re­cently, and I was sit­ting there with Cameron Diaz and Bey­once and all th­ese other fa­mous peo­ple. I looked at the ticket price. It was $5000. I can’t wrap my head around that. I have no idea where my pa­thetic na­ture comes from, but I know if I thought about it for too long I would get de­pressed.”

God for­bid he does that.

In Evan Almighty, Steve Carrell plays a politi­cian charged by God with build­ing a lat­ter-day Noah’s ark to keep his furry crew high and dry

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